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The Great Tertiary Color Debate

The Great Tertiary Color DebateThe internet…. that great supplier of information at your fingertips, making it fast and easy to find answers and share them with the world! But what if those answers being shared are incorrect?? 

Vladimir Lenin once said, “A lie told often enough becomes the truth.” (Hmmmm….. did Lenin really say that, or has it just been credited to him so often it’s assumed to be true??) This may be exactly what’s going on with The Great Tertiary Color Debate!

So, what is a tertiary color and why should we care?? 

To make sense of the whole tertiary color conundrum, you just need a basic understanding of the color wheel… 

The artist has three primary colors – red, yellow, and blue; the colors which cannot be mixed from other colors. 

Then the secondary colors, orange, green, and violet, are made by mixing two primary colors together (red + yellow = orange; yellow + blue = green; blue + red = violet). 

Most everyone agrees on that much. The rest should be just as straightforward, but sadly it’s not.

Two additional color mixtures our students need to know are intermediate colors and tertiary colors

In her classic book, Art Is Fundamental, Eileen S. Prince explains that

“An intermediate color is made by mixing uneven amounts of two primary colors. The same result can be achieved by mixing a primary with a related secondary (a secondary next to it on the color wheel).”

Ralph Fabri, author of COLOR: A Complete Guide for Artists, expands on this idea, saying,

“Depending on how much of each primary is in these mixtures, the result can be a yellow-orange or a red-orange, a yellow-green or a blue-green, a blue-violet or a red-violet.”

Intermediate colors are always named with the primary color first and the secondary color second. It’s easy to see how an understanding of intermediate colors would be helpful when mixing colors or when talking about color.

Next are the tertiary colors. According to Eileen S. Prince,

“A tertiary is made by mixing two secondaries.”

This is the same definition we find on Dictionary.com (based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2016):

tertiary color (noun)

1.  a color, as brown, produced by mixing two secondary colors.

Here’s how Ralph Fabri defines tertiary colors:

“Any two secondary colors mixed together form a tertiary color.” He further explains, “Consider that when you mix violet and green, you actually mix red and blue with blue and yellow. A mixture of orange and green consists of red and yellow, and yellow and blue. A tertiary obtained from violet and orange contains blue and red, mixed with red and yellow. In other words, each tertiary contains two portions of one color, and one portion each of two other colors.”

So, you could say that in its simplest form, a tertiary color contains some combination of all three primary colors. Since the term “tertiary” relates to having three parts, that makes sense to me.

Why is it important for our students to know this? Because mixing the three primaries (or mixing any color with its complement – the color directly across from it on the color wheel, thus mixing all three primaries) will result in a neutral (grayish or brownish) version of the dominant color. Knowing how to tone down a color (or how not to, if that’s not what you’re trying to do!) is an important skill for any painter. 

Makes sense so far, right?? Well, herein lies the great debate…. Somewhere along the line, people started referring to intermediate colors as tertiary colors, leaving the true tertiary colors out of the conversation completely! Combine this with how quickly information (true or false) spreads on the internet, and it becomes hard to know what to believe anymore!

We’ve all heard that we can’t assume everything we read on the internet is true, and this Merriam-Webster definition is a perfect example. 

Definition of tertiary color:

  a color produced by mixing two secondary colors

  a color produced by an equal mixture of a primary color with a secondary color adjacent to it on the color wheel

These two definitions are actually in conflict with each other! The first definition is correct, but definition #2 would produce an intermediate color, not a tertiary!

Yet, if you go to tertiary color on Merriam-Webster’s site and scroll down, you’ll see that their “Medical Definition” is the correct one. (How this is used in medicine, I have no idea!)

:  a color produced by mixing two secondary colors

Scroll further down to the comment section at the bottom of Merriam-Webster’s definition for a lively discussion on the meaning of “tertiary colors”!

Not to put all the blame on Merriam-Webster, this confusion can be found all over the internet and even in some of the newer books on color theory.

To sum it all up, here’s Eileen S. Prince again:

“Intermediates are bright, pure colors, such as red-orange or blue-green. Tertiaries are dull colors with names like olive or bronze (orange plus green), slate (green plus violet), or russet (orange plus violet)….. Many websites and other sources now define them interchangeably. They will tell you that the term “tertiary” can refer to a color made by mixing two secondaries or it can be another word for an intermediate. How is this possible? The results are totally different! I urge you to teach the true definitions of these terms.”

So, when Merriam-Webster can’t even decide what the correct definition is, you can see that there’s plenty of confusion on this topic! Then every website and blogger who takes a stand on one side or the other (like me!), keeps it going…. 

It’s your turn to weigh in! How would you define tertiary color and how would you back up your claim? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below!

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  1. Hi Cheryl,

    I am just completing a Skillshare course about this very subject.

    Color is an experience first and then we start naming and ordering.

    I have always maintained the true tertiary relationship in my art and in my teaching.

    Black and white are not true greys. Grey is everywhere in nature and is a tertiary grey as you so well explained in your blog.

  2. I like simple explanations…

    Primary Colors: Red Yellow Blue

    Intermediate Colors: Any unbalanced mix of two primary colors

    Secondary: A balanced mix of two primary colors

    Tertiary (third in order): Any mix of all three primary colors

  3. Tertiary seems to actually be what is taught to be the result of mixing complementary colors. Example: mixing red with green

  4. Hello, can you please elaborate more on, “ It’s easy to see how an understanding of intermediate colors would be helpful when mixing colors or when talking about color.”? Hope to receive your reply soon ASAP, thanks!

    1. Hi Hazelle! Thanks for your question. Here’s what I meant by that. To avoid confusion it’s important to have a common language when we talk about color, color mixing, and the color wheel. An intermediate color is made by mixing UNEVEN amounts of 2 primary colors (ex. yellow + red). So to be consistent in the way we talk about the resulting color we name the primary color used in the greater amount first, followed by the secondary color that would have been made by mixing those 2 primaries in equal amounts (ex. yellow-orange or red-orange). When we understand how colors are mixed and have a common language to describe them, it helps the process make sense and eliminates confusion. I hope that helps!

  5. Thank you! All beautifully clear! I have always understood primaries and secondaries, and have used terms like a bluey-green or a yellowy-green, but hadn’t heard the description intermediate for those unequal mixes of primaries. I have a friend whose clothes are always in what she describes as tertiary colours – and I had sort of assumed that tertiary colours were primaries or secondaries which had had a little black added, or a little of an opposite colour. And then when I looked up tertiary colours online, there were heaps of coloured diagrams with no murky colours at all, claiming that various shades of secondaries were tertiaries! It is great to now be totally clear: intermediates are glowing colours, never murky, with two primaries mixed in uneven proportions; tertiaries are made by mixing all three primaries – the varying amounts of each primary creating the various shades of brown, grey, olive etc etc……Thank you! Now I can teach this colour business correctly!

    1. Thank you for your comment, Judy! I’m so glad you found this post helpful and clear! I’ve been dismayed to see tertiary colors defined incorrectly all over the internet, so I just had to try to set the record straight. It’s great to know that my explanation made sense. Thanks again for your comment and for helping me spread the word about what tertiary colors really are!

  6. I’m still confused. If there are 3 secondary colors (green, orange and violet), then there are only 3 possible combos of mixing them,( green-orange, green-violet and orange-violet). Does this mean there are only 3 tertiary colors then?

    1. Great question, Brian! That’s a logical conclusion, but tertiary colors are really just any combination of all three primaries. In other words, you don’t necessarily have to combine secondary colors to make a tertiary (although you could). When you want to mix a brown or gray (a tertiary), you can just use a bit of each of the primary colors – you don’t need to mix any secondary colors first. I hope this helps!

  7. Hey Cheryl, this is a great article! Honestly, I didn’t know the colors between primaries and secondaries were called intermediate instead of tertiary. I know you’re only mentioning the RYB color model, but does this theory also applies to RGB and CMYK? I would love to read about the tertiary colors for those two models. Thank you so much!


    1. Thanks for your comment, Bruna! This is the way I learned it, with intermediate colors being between the primary and secondary colors on the color wheel, with their exact position depending on the ratio of each color used. Then tertiaries would be a mix of each of the primaries. For color mixing with paint, this really makes the most sense to me, although I know this topic is controversial! Since RGB is the digital color model (what you see on your screen) and CMYK is the model used for printing on paper, they are really very different processes and I’m not sure how they use the term “tertiary”. For color mixing with paint, though, I haven’t heard a better term than “tertiary” for those browns and neutrals achieved by mixing the three primary colors together. Great question… thanks again for asking!

  8. Thank you for this. I have a degree in fine art and I am now a primary school teacher. It is driving me up the wall at how the language of colour and colour mixing is being used incorrectly in teaching . I am even more aghast at the misinformation on the internet and teaching resources in this area! As my education in this area is from the point of view of an artist, I wonder if the ‘new’ way of using the term tertiary, to mean intermediate, is a result of colour mixing in big industry like printing or interior design paint?

    1. That’s an interesting idea, Jo. I hadn’t thought of that! I’ve often wondered how this incorrect use of the term “tertiary” first took hold. I think it’s entirely possible that it could have come from a big industry like printing or house paint. You just might be right!